EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Kavous Seyed-Emami, an environmentalist whose death this month in a notorious Iranian prison has drawn worldwide media attention, is being mourned by his friends in Eugene, where he earned a doctorate at the University of Oregon in 1991.

Iranian authorities have said that Seyed-Emami committed suicide; critics and his family dismiss that as improbable and are calling for an investigation.

Seyed-Emami decided to return to Iran more than 25 years ago. He did so because of how much he cared about the country's environment and wildlife, particularly the rare Asiatic cheetah, said longtime friend Mohammad Maleki, a computer engineer at the UO.

"He basically gave his life for serving his country," said Maleki, who became friends with Seyed-Emami in the late 1980s. "He loved Iran, he loved (Iranian) culture. He could have chosen to live outside of Iran and had a very comfortable life either in the U.S. or Canada, but he chose the hard path, to go back to Iran (and) make a difference."

Friends plan to hold a private memorial service for Seyed-Emami, a dual Iranian and Canadian citizen, this weekend on the UO campus.

Seyed-Emami, 64, was the founder of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and a sociology professor at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran, Iran's capital. He was arrested late last month on suspicion of spying, with Iranian officials saying he used wildlife study as a cover to collect information about Iranian missile bases for the United States and Israel, according to media reports from the Middle East.

Friends and family dispute the claims and question the circumstances of Seyed-Emami's death. Iranian officials say he committed suicide by hanging himself, but lawyers representing his family are calling for more investigation.

"The expectation is that judicial authorities investigating this case will act firmly and without bias according to their legal duties in helping to clarify the why and how of this terrible national tragedy," the attorneys said in a post on the blog of Ramin Seyed-Emami, one of Kavous Seyed-Emami's two sons. Ramin Seyed-Emami also is known as King Raam, a rock star in Iran who sings in Persian and English.

Ellen Scott, head of the UO Department of Sociology, other UO faculty in the department and the American Sociological Association also are calling for more review of Seyed-Emami's death. The association has sent requests to the U.S. Department of State and its Canadian counterparts to request a human rights inquiry.

Nahla Bassil, Maleki's wife and a plant geneticist at Oregon State University, has fond memories of camping and going outdoors with Seyed-Emami and his family, who returned occasionally to Eugene to visit friends.

"It's really sad what happened to him because he was one of those people who was courageous enough to go back to his country and make a difference," she said.

UO student, Iranian teacher

Kavous Seyed-Emami was born in Tehran on Dec. 24, 1953, and came to the United States for college. He earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Ohio University in 1985 and a master's degree in development studies in 1986 from Ohio University.

He then moved to Eugene and earned a master's degree in sociology in 1988 at the UO before embarking on his doctoral studies. Seyed-Emami wrote a dissertation called "Shi'ism and Development in Post-Revolutionary Iran," as part of his sociology doctorate.

"This study is an attempt to make sense of the relationship between Shi'i Islam and socioeconomic development in post-revolutionary Iran," Seyed-Emami wrote in summing up his more-than-200-page dissertation.

The UO had a couple of hundred students in the late 1980s who came from Iran, said Bijan Shahir, who is now a mathematics instructor at the university. Many of the students were friends, so, even though Shahir studied physics and Seyed-Emami studied sociology, they knew each other well.

Seyed-Emami had a reputation as an intelligent, measured man.

"He was kind," Shahir said. "He talked to people in a gentle manner. . He was very respectful of people, different opinions. He wasn't a radical person."

Once he earned his Ph.D. in 1991, Seyed-Emami returned to Iran, Shahir said, to work at one of the country's most conservative universities. His lessons served as counterpoints to the primary teachings at Imam Sadiq University.

Country and environment

Friends say they will remember Seyed-Emami for his two passions: Iran and preserving the country's wildlife.

Strict government rule and the ongoing military buildup since 1979 have depleted water supplies around Iran and left many animals in peril, said Chuck Hunt, a retired UO sociology professor. Seyed-Emami's mission was to make people, especially Iranians, aware of the problem.

"He went back because he felt he had an opportunity to really change the culture, change the mindset in Iran," Hunt said, "and I think he did."

Seyed-Emami had been on sabbatical in Canada this past fall and early this winter, Hunt said. He had planned to visit Eugene in December, but changed his plans after selling a car in Canada took longer than expected.

Hunt choked up after thinking of the missed opportunity to see his dear friend for the last time.

"He didn't just have a past connection (to Eugene)," Hunt said. "He stayed in touch with a lot of us who were in graduate school, who knew him when he was here."

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com